Once Burned Page 1

Chapter 1

I parked my bike in front of the restaurant, wiping the perspiration from my upper lip. It was unseasonably warm this January, but sweating during a Florida winter was better than freezing in a Northern one. I twisted my hair into a knot, my neck cooler once the long black swath was off it. With a final swipe at my forehead, I entered the restaurant, ignoring the tables in favor of the patrons seated at the bar.

It only took a glance to see that most of them were average height, with a few extremely tall exceptions. Damn. If Marty wasn't here, then I had to ride to his next favorite hangout, and it looked like it was going to rain. I threaded through the tables, making sure to keep my right hand affixed to my thigh so it wouldn't accidentally brush anyone. It was that or wear the bulky electrical glove that inspired questions from nosy strangers. When I got to the bar, I smiled at the pierced, tattooed man who scooted enough to give me space at the countertop.

’’Seen Marty?’’ I asked him.

Dean shook his head, rustling the chains that led from his nostrils to his ears. ’’Not yet, but I just got here.’’

’’Raquel?’’ I called out. The bartender turned around, revealing a beautiful but bearded face that tourists surreptitiously or openly stared at.

’’The usual, Frankie?’’ she asked, reaching for a wineglass.

That wasn't my real name, but it was what I went by nowadays. ’’Not this time. I'm looking for Marty.’’

’’Hasn't been in yet,’’ she stated.

Raquel didn't ask why I'd come in person instead of calling to ask that same question. Even though all the carnies that wintered in Gibsonton pretended they didn't know about my condition, none of them except Marty ever attempted to touch me, and no matter the weather, they didn't offer me a ride when they saw me on my bicycle.

I sighed. ’’If he comes in, tell him I'm looking for him?’’ We were supposed to start practice two hours ago. The off season turned Marty from a rigidly disciplined partner into a frequent slacker. If I didn't find him soon, he'd pass the point of being reasoned with and would stay out all night drinking and telling stories about the old carnival glory days.

Raquel smiled, revealing pretty white teeth in stark contrast to her dark, bristly beard. ’’Sure thing.’’

I started to walk away, but Dean tapped his beer with his fork, directing my attention back to him with the sound. ’’Want me to call the Tropicana and ask if Marty's there?’’

He had correctly guessed the next place I was headed to, but then again, Dean had known Marty longer than I had.

’’It's only a mile and I need to keep my legs in shape.’’

’’They look fine to me,’’ Dean said huskily, his gaze lingering on the limbs in question before moving over the rest of my body. Due to the heat, I only wore shorts and a tank top, so his view was pretty unrestricted. Then Dean shook his head as if to remind himself why checking me out was a bad idea. ’’See you around, Frankie,’’ he finished in a brisker tone.

My chest tightened with an ache that was as familiar as it was useless. Yeah, Dean knew why fantasizing about my legs-or any other part of me-was pointless, and I'd long ago accepted that there were some things I'd never have. Yet in a flash of weakness, I found myself looking at a couple who were seated at a nearby table. Their fingers were interlaced as they whispered to each other. That simple touch was something they hardly seemed aware of, but it caught my attention like a spotlight beamed onto it, turning that ache in my chest into something closer to a burn.

The couple glanced at me, perhaps sensing my stare, but then their gaze quickly passed me by. Either they hadn't noticed the scar that ran from my temple to my right hand, or they didn't find it as interesting as the lizard-scale tattoos covering Dean's entire body, Raquel's beard, J.D.'s eight-foot height, or Katie's fourteen-inch waist that looked even tinier compared to her ample h*ps and double-D chest. It was still early, too. Most of Showtown USA's regulars didn't get here until after nine.

The couple continued to stare at the group by the bar without any attempt at subtlety, and the annoyance I felt over my friends being gawked at shook me from my brief melancholy. Some tourists came to Gibsonton to marvel at the carnival remains decorating many streets, or to see the occasional trained bear, elephant, or other exotic animal on someone's lawn, but most of them came to stare at the ’’freaks.’’ The locals were immune to it, or played up their peculiarities for tips, but I still couldn't shake my anger over the rudeness so often displayed. Different didn't equal subhuman, yet that's exactly how many of Gibsonton's residents were treated by passersby.

Still, it wasn't my place to lecture people on their lack of manners, not to mention Raquel wouldn't take kindly to me chastising her customers. With my lips compressed together, I headed to the door, startled when it flung open as I reached for it. I jumped back in time to avoid being plowed over by a man who strode through as though he owned the place, but I wasn't fast enough to prevent his hand from grazing my arm.

’’Ouch’’! he snapped at the contact, giving me an accusing glance. ’’What the hell?’’

He didn't know it, but he was lucky. If I hadn't learned to harness some of the currents in me, or released the worst of them into lightning rods only an hour before, his experience would've been much worse.

’’Static electricity,’’ I lied. ’’It's bad around this area.’’

His expression said he didn't believe me, but I had nothing in my hands, and my outfit wouldn't conceal much, either. After another glare, he turned his back on me.

’’Which exit do I take to get to Tampa?’’ he called out to the bar at large. ’’My damn nav system isn't working here.’’

That wasn't unusual around these parts and I knew the answer, but I stayed silent, not wanting to risk another inadvertent touch by talking to him again.

I went out the bar door-and a harried-looking blonde ran right into me. She let out a yelp that I mentally echoed out of sheer frustration. After months of a spotless record, now I'd zapped two people in less than five minutes. At least Rude Dude had taken some of the extra voltage out of me so hers probably did feel like static electricity instead of mild electrocution.

’’I'm sorry,’’ I said, backing away at once.

’’It's my fault.’’ She laughed, patting me in an apologetic way. ’’I wasn't looking-’’

I didn't hear the rest of what she said. Images seared across my mind in varying shades of black, white, and gray.

I was in bed with my lover, our heavy breathing the only sound in the room. Afterward, I whispered that I was going to tell my husband I was leaving him the following weekend.

That wasn't what made me stiffen, however. It was the next images that filled my mind, in full color this time, only hazy, as though seen through a fog.

I was in a thick, swampish area, staring in horror as my husband's hands clamped around my throat. Pain exploded in my neck, blurring his image as I futilely scratched and clawed at his gloved hands. He increased the pressure while telling me he'd found out about my affair and exactly how he'd dispose of my body. The pain intensified until it seared its way down my entire body. Then, mercifully, it stopped, and I felt like I was floating away. My murderer stayed where he was, his hands still clamped around my throat, unaware that I was now looking down at him from outside my body. Finally, he let go. Then he walked over to where he'd parked the car, opened the trunk, and took out several items as though musing over which one to start with first . . .

’’Frankie!’’

I blinked, back in my own consciousness, the hazy images fading into the familiar, crystal-clear surroundings of the bar. Dean stood between me and the woman who'd unwittingly triggered my abilities by touching my right hand. He didn't make that same mistake, but Dean was close enough that I had to look over his shoulder to see her. She clutched her hand as though it hurt, her brown eyes wide as she babbled something to the man I now knew was her husband. The same man who'd murder her tonight, if I didn't stop him.

’’I didn't do anything!’’ she kept saying. ’’She just started screaming . . .’’

Her husband grabbed her arm. ’’Screw this creep show, Jackie, we'll get directions somewhere else.’’

’’Stop them,’’ I gasped to Dean, still feeling the phantom effect of fingers on my throat. ’’He's going to kill her.’’

If anyone in the bar had been minding their business before, that statement directed their attention to me better than a gunshot. Jackie gaped at me, but her husband's eyes narrowed. He began to push his way past the small crowd that gathered around us, dragging her along.

Dean stood in their path, blocking the way to the exit. ’’You're not leaving yet,’’ he said calmly.

The husband paused, looking Dean up and down. If Dean's expression wasn't intimidating enough, the scaly green tattoos covering his skin rippled when he crossed his arms, showing bulky muscles.

’’Come on,’’ the husband muttered. ’’I don't want trouble-’’

’’Look in his trunk,’’ I interrupted, my voice stronger. ’’You'll find work gloves, duct tape, and leaf and lawn bags.’’

The surrounding patrons had begun to stare at the husband. He laughed uneasily. ’’I don't have to listen to this shit-’’

’’Plus he has an axe, a shovel, flashlights, bleach, rope, pliers, and a book on forensics,’’ I cut him off again. ’’You found out she was leaving you and you couldn't handle it. So you were going to strangle her, pull out all her teeth, and cut off the ends of her fingers so even if her body was found, no one would be able to identify her.’’

He looked stunned. Jackie began to shake while tears spurted from her eyes. ’’Phil, is-is that true?’’

’’No!’’ he thundered. ’’The crazy bitch is lying!’’

And then he made a huge mistake and whirled around, grabbing my shoulders. Dean went to haul him back, but I was faster. The memory of experiencing everything he intended for Jackie made me merciless, and I laid my right hand on his arm, releasing the hold I had over those unwanted currents in me.

Another series of images exploded in my mind, colorless from age, but that wasn't why I touched him. My vision dimmed as I felt the current surge from me into Phil in less than the time it took Dean to yank him away. Phil fell onto the floor, and after several blinks I saw with satisfaction that he was still convulsing. A few tourists screamed. Jackie sobbed. I felt bad about that, but a few tears now were a far better fate than what Phil had planned for her.

’’What happened?’’ one of the unfamiliar onlookers demanded.

’’He grabbed her, so she Tasered him,’’ Dean said gruffly.

I didn't have a Taser, but J.D. moved in front of me, blocking that from view with his huge eight-foot frame.

Jackie recovered herself and, with shaking hands, pulled a set of car keys from Phil's pocket. He didn't seem to notice, being too busy twitching and pissing himself. No one stopped her as she went out to the parking lot, but Dean followed her after tossing me a grim look.

Jackie's scream moments later made several people walk out, some throwing money on their tables, some not. Jackie must have seen that I was spot-on about what was in the trunk.

Raquel came up to me and wearily rubbed her beard. ’’You're in for it now, Frankie.’’

I thought she meant I had to cover the lost revenue from the tourists who were beating a hasty retreat. It was my fault that they stiffed their tabs, so I couldn't blame Raquel, but covering those expenses was worth saving a woman's life.

It was only later, after Jackie sobbingly explained to the police what happened, that I realized the full extent of what Raquel meant. By then, it was too late.

Chapter 2

Marty stared in silence as I jumped on the trampoline with more force than was needed. With his four-foot, one-inch height, he was barely as tall as the edge of the trampoline, but his sideburns, wrinkles, and stoutly muscled frame showed he was no child. I looked away from him and focused my attention inward, barely noticing the landscape rising and falling with every jump. When I was high enough, I clasped my knees to my chest in a classic tuck, then quickly twisted into a pike before my feet hit the flexible surface and bounced me upward again.

Not tight enough in the tuck! I could almost hear my old trainer shout. That's a full point deduction, Leila! You'll never make the team with scores that low.

I pushed those memories aside and concentrated on my next move-a barani ball-out. This maneuver was even sloppier than the last, my foot doing an embarrassing slip backward upon landing. Another deduction, I thought automatically, but powered through the last set of somersaults and turntables. No self-respecting judge would give me high marks for those, but they looked impressive so the carnival spectators loved them.

This time, instead of landing on the trampoline, I changed direction at the last second and both my feet slammed down on Marty's shoulders. The velocity plus my weight should've brought him to his knees and broken several bones, but Marty stood ramrod-straight. He grabbed my ankles, steadying me with a grip that was firm enough to allow me to stretch to my full height of five-six, arms triumphantly extended over my head.

’’And the crowd goes wild,’’ Marty said ironically as I bowed.

I jumped down once he let go of my ankles. ’’Not as many crowds these days. People have too many other things to do than go to traveling carnivals.’’

He grunted. ’’If Stan had his way, you'd use your newfound celebrity status to help with that.’’

I grimaced at the mention of our boss's delight over what happened with Jackie two weeks ago. At least no one was gathered by our fence today. Just my luck that Jackie's sister had been a reporter who blasted the news of my ’’premonition’’ across every media avenue available to her. Phil pled not guilty and there wasn't enough evidence to prove he'd intended to murder his wife, but my knowledge of Jackie's plan to leave him combined with my flawless description of what was in his trunk was enough to draw the curious these past couple weeks. If not for my unfortunate tendency to electrocute everyone I touched, I could've made a nice stash doing palm readings, but as it was, I couldn't wait for my fifteen minutes of fame to be over.


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